Saturday, August 5, 2017

Good grief! Why I keep running marathons


Yesterday I signed up to run  nine marathons over the next two months. I read over that sentence and think, “Who am I?,” which could be interpreted in a positive way, and “What’s wrong with me?”

In my last post, I started trying to explain why and how I recently ran seven marathons in seven days, a ridiculous distance, for me, of more than 183 miles: 

I write ‘started trying’ because I still don’t know why I ran those races, the  Mainly Marathons Prairie Series,  and am still coming to an understanding of how. 

That post barely scratched the surface. I didn’t write about the restless, forgetful fog I’ve been living in the last few months, and how marathoning and being around marathoners  brings me out of it and gives me joy. 

Other things I left out include: the friends, loved ones and runners – past and present – who inspired me and the other athletes out gunning for the finish line those days; my own past -- including a ton of unresolved anger and sadness; the day-to-day logistics – an inadequate word for the organizational and emotional commitment of the Mainly Marathon staff and volunteers. More to come on all of that at some later point. The stories I heard and the acts of sheer will that I witnessed on those seven days still overwhelm.  

I don’t think it’s an accident that the day before yesterday, the day I simultaneously maxed out my credit card and gave new definition to my own marathon mania, my mom and I went shopping for gravestones. More about that another time, too. 

Shattering, shaking, quaking, shivering. Those are some of the words I associate with that two-hour visit as we sat with a salesperson and talked about decorations my dad would like on  his memorial stone,  as though he would ever lay eyes on any fanciful designs ever again.  I’m talking experiencing visceral reactions, carefully hidden. God forbid that we of Irish descent show anything but stoicism in the face of incredible loss.  

Arrived home to a flyer in the mail from my father’s hospice folks. Read the flyer and posted it on my refrigerator so I could refer back to it. Thought I’d post bits of it here for anyone like me, working their own way through the grief process. I’m guessing that’s pretty much most of us. 

I’m sure that, like me, you’ve all seen the following in one form or another. Consider this a helpful reminder. Thank you, Notre Dame Hospice for the following words of wisdom, and for reminding me of how normal I am. 

If you feel you are ‘going crazy’ know you are not alone. Some normal and very common responses people experience in grief are: 

Recurring need to tell the story about the loss. 

Restfulness, forgetfulness, and/or difficulty concentrating. 

Sensing the deceased person’s presence.

Changes in eating and sleeping patterns.

Crying and/or sharp mood swings.

Feelings of guilt or regret. 

Weakness and lack of energy. 

Healing from grief and regaining a balance in life takes time. . . Remain patient with yourself and nurture yourself, as you would a good friend. Remember, your grief is unique.   

Now off to find some joy. Time to run.   

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The agony, the ecstasy, the whys of the run

I just set a new personal record: fourteen marathons in seventy days. This averages out to two a week. I haven’t had much time to think about these races. I’d finish one, and get ready for the next.

For the last couple of months, I haven’t had much time to think about much of anything. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing.  I run, sleep, eat, space out in front of  Law and Order repeats, sometimes read.  The last year or so, I’ve been having trouble focusing.
A friend pointed out that I should be documenting all my runs as I marathon my way through the fifty states. She reminded me that at one time, I was good at posting about each race. 

I haven’t been good about doing this lately. As a result I’ve lost a lot of those tiny snapshots, snippets of conversation, random wildlife sightings, silly and profound thoughts, that make this journey so worthwhile.

Right now, I have so many emotions bubbling up inside me, that I’m not sure I could write about any of these fourteen races in an orderly fashion.  I know it’s important though, that I get some of this written down.  

A lot of kind folks cheered me on via my Facebook race postings. They asked some good questions too. So I thought I’d start off remembering by answering their questions and making up some of my own to answer too.  Here goes.

Why are you doing all these races? 

My dad died in April. I haven’t yet even begun to come to terms with this enormous shift in my reality.  I am not myself at all. I veer between spaced out zombie and fight or flight nutso. Running makes me feel normal. Being around runners, especially marathoners, makes me happy. 

Are you committing suicide by marathon? 

That thought has crossed my mind and when it does, I laugh.  Marathoning is death’s polar opposite. It’s joyful.  I’m committing to life by marathoning.

Why fourteen marathons? Why seventy days?

First, it’s not staying at fourteen. Second it’s not staying at seventy days. Third, it was supposed to be fifteen. I had to no-show for one race because a loved one was hospitalized and I’m the only close family nearby.

What keeps you going?

My first race in this streak was my first ultra marathon – 50k, about 31 miles -- in Maine. It was a brutal day with rain coming down in sheets. I had to change my hat and my jacket several times and by the end was still totally soaked to the bone. I never once considered quitting. All I could think was how this great rift in my life – the death of my dad, required something big on my part. 

My biggest problem that day was finishing a race I’d chosen to sign up for. And a little bit of hypothermia. 


Sounds like it was easy then, all things considered? 

Ha! The first seven marathons were relatively easy, as far as getting in the right mindset. But I cried nearly every morning of the next seven, my seven marathons in seven days streak. I'm still not sure why I cried. I was sad. But I was happy too, and grateful.

My body gave out on day six of the seven, at mile 22. Up until then, I was following a terrific run/ walk program that was helping my soft tissues adjust to getting beaten up. I started walking at mile 22 of day six.  The day was super hot. Every day was crazy hot. But for some reason, at mile 22 that day,  my heart rate went through the roof if I so much as jogged slowly. 

Day seven I walked the whole thing. It was eighty-seven degrees at the start and every molecule in my being was spent before I even started the race. Plus, the soles of my feet were killing me. 

No soreness until the last day?  

Nothing before then that I couldn’t handle. I was careful. Took every run slower than slow. Focused on the big picture, which was to finish one run and have enough in me to do it again the next day.  I took in lots of protein, used a massage stick, stayed hydrated, bathed in Epsom salts, iced sore parts, and developed a deep and what will likely prove to be a lifelong friendship with my new best friend forever: Biofreeze. 

The only day I woke up so sore and thought: “I can’t do this,” was that last morning.  Immediately after I thought that, I had a panic attack.

You were ready to give up on the last day? 

More like I didn’t know how on earth I’d be able to finish.  I got dressed and got to the course in time for the 3:30 a.m. start.  You always have a better chance of finishing if you show up, right?
The worst for me was lap fourteen of eighteen.  Many runners had finished by then so the out and back route got pretty lonely. The sun was blazing. It was close to 100 degrees and the shade was long gone. The soles of my feet were on fire. I had blisters on blisters and still had another ninety minutes or so left on the course.  

What kept me going: a slide show in my head of my dad the last twelve months of his life.  

Well before his September 2016 lower leg amputation, my dad was diagnosed with peripheral vascular disease. Due to heart failure, which he’d been living with for twenty-five years, my dad’s body wasn’t pumping enough blood to keep the tissues alive in his lower right leg. He was in terrible pain whenever he walked or even so much as lowered his leg to the ground to prepare to walk.

Until that point, my elderly dad was always on the go: a walker – at least two miles a day, and a golfer – eighteen holes or more five days a week. My dad tried everything to avoid amputation. He endured all kinds of surgeries and spent over 180 hours -- three hours a day over a span of sixty days, in a hyperbaric chamber.  I was his chauffeur, his medical liaison, his sounding board.   

At mile 14 I thought of my dad and all his struggles. “I’m wasting my life away in hospitals,” he’d say. "This is no life." But he'd do anything to try to save that leg.

Gradually, I pulled myself together. My dad never gave up. How could I?
Plus, most of the runners still out on the course were experts at really bad jokes: “Have we built enough character yet?”  “Only a thousand laps left to go!” “I hate marathons!” The last comment came from a guy who’ll have over two thousand marathons done by the end of the year.   

Agony. Ecstasy.  Life.  What a rush.  

Stopping for now, but I’m sure I’ll be writing more. The more I write, the more I remember.  Right now, remembering is good.

Marathons: 37
States: 23

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Love Your Face: Eulogy for My Dad

            Let’s begin by going back about 24 years, specifically to the first Sunday of April, 1993.
            This particular Sunday, Bob was feeling under the weather, with what he thought was the flu. On the advice of the doctor, my mother drove him to the ER. As it turned out, Bob wasn’t suffering from the flu. He was in the midst of a massive heart attack. 
             That evening was a blur.  We were told to prepare for the worst. Somehow, Bob survived that first night. 
              For days, Bob’s vital signs rode more steep ups and downs than a city of Worcester school bus.  Exhausted, we spent our days camped out in the ICU waiting room of the old Saint Vincent’s Hospital on Vernon Hill, impatiently waiting our turn, one family member at a time, to visit with him.   
           Again and again we asked ourselves: How could this happen to such a fit man who always ate right – except for his once a week dose of chocolate cake or blueberry pie from Sam’s Bakery – and exercised  regularly? He was barely retired a year at that time. Eighteen holes of golf followed by three mile walks were a regular part of his daily routine.
            Then it was the following Sunday, one tumultuous  week later, a beautiful spring day with the promise of new life in the air: Sun shining brightly; Green grass poking up through what remained of the winter snow.  Bob’s room in ICU was still crowded with all kinds of scary, beeping machinery. We arrived for our usual visits, but he cut them short. He didn’t want to wear himself out. It was the final day of the Master’s Tournament and he was determined to save up enough energy to watch it.
            We took this as a good sign. And indeed it was. That evening, his vitals began to stabilize. Within days, he was moved from ICU to a regular hospital room. Granted, there were some pretty talented medical professionals involved in Bob’s recovery, but deep down we knew the truth. Golf saved him.  
            Given the substantial damage to his heart, doctors estimated Bob had about four years of living left. My father, a man of integrity and honesty, made sure we were all aware that he’d been given an end date. He wanted us prepared.
            “What are you gonna do?” He’d say to us, shrugging, not one tear in his eye. “Hey! I’m lucky to be alive.”
             Bob’s brush with death back then turned out to be a gift.  Because we were all aware that the future wasn’t guaranteed, we treated every day as though it was his last until this mindset became ingrained in each of us. We always took the opportunity to express to him, Patsy, each loved one, how much they mattered. Nearly every interaction ended with a phrase my grandmother, his mother, had started to regularly say to all of us: “Love your face.” 
            Over the phone: “Love your face, dad.”
            “Love your face kid.” 
            After an evening out or an afternoon excursion, a big hug and a wet kiss on the cheek: “Love your face. Love your face, kid.”
            “Yeah. Yeah. We know.  Love your face, dad.”
  ,         There were lots of ways my dad could have chosen to act in the years after his heart attack. He could have sat back, given up, and waited for death, for example. But as history shows us, Bob wasn’t that type of person. He always pushed for more. He was the first in his family to graduate college. Got his doctorate in education, when a bachelor’s would have been just fine.  He so finely honed his golf game that, in his prime, he won golf tournaments left and right and got not one hole in one, but four.
            Married above his station – he liked to joke -- the smart, funny, and beautiful Catherine Patricia.         
            He not only visited his mother every Sunday, he also stopped in on Mondays for lunch. She’d always have a half sandwich, a glass of milk, and a piece of fruit waiting for him. He went above and beyond as a dad too by giving us his most precious commodity, his time: piano sing-alongs – "I’m a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch" was my personal favorite – beach and ski vacations, piano lessons, golf lessons, trips to Canada, Florida, and Ireland.
            Rather than sit back and wait for his heart to give out, Bob lived every day as if it was his last. In the process, he defied all his doctors’ predictions. Within months of his hospitalization, he returned to golf, determined to regain his strength. And he did. Over the next two decades, he and Patsy traveled everywhere: Florida several times a year, all over the U.S. to visit Tara, and then all over Europe as well. He loved spending time with his grandchildren. Was proud to be there in person to see Katie and Bridget accept all sorts of academic awards and graduate middle school, high school, college. He loved spending time with Conor and Annie Cate: buying them books, tracking Conor’s swim team achievements. He couldn’t get enough of Annie Cate’s piano playing. He and Patsy shared in their joy as they visited some of the most beautiful and historic sites of Europe.  
            The fact that Bob continued to live – truly live in every sense of the word – is a gift that still inspires awe, even here and now. But the fact that we all knew – my dad especially, that every single one of those days was a gift?  And that we got to see that gratitude every day, in a life so well-lived?  And get to feel that gratitude still, here and now?
             That’s a gift that will keep on giving.  
            On behalf of my mother and father, Tara, myself, Katie, Bridget, Conor, and Annie Cate, thank you all for being here today. As my dad said many times, especially in the last few months, always with joy in his heart and gratitude in his soul, “You’re all good kids.”
            Dad, you’re a pretty good kid too. For always and forever, to infinity and beyond, we love love love love love your face.

Back in the '70s, near Killarney: My dad practicing his golf swing. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Three marathons and a couple of baby breakdowns: Look who's balking now

I need to: go for a run, clean the house, eat better, sleep longer, socialize more, get a hair cut, grocery shop, pay bills. But first this.

I ran three marathons last year, 2016. All of them faster than I'd run in several years. Why? I was consistent. Last year's goal was the Big C -- consistency, especially with my running. I set a goal to run 1,000 miles. For most of the year I was on track to run 1,200 and for most of the year I felt confident I'd reach that mark.

Then in October, I hit a wall.  Not one made of bricks or funded by American taxpayers. Not the 20-mile mark during a marathon either, where your legs stop listening to you and you walk/ slog to the finish line. My wall was made of scarier stuff: spiraling family health issues. Our family's finish line is still up ahead. I predict plenty more walls. The October one is where my head is now. So back to spring, where it started, then onto what lies ahead. 

The marathon I ran in the spring was spur of the moment. I didn't train. My longest runs were twelve-milers, and those were just a few times a few weeks earlier. I wasn't sleeping at night, had no appetite. Most days my hands and stomach wouldn't stop shaking, even though the anxiety meds I was taking should have kicked in, unless I ran six, seven, or eight miles. There was no time to run more and most of those runs were interrupted and/or shortened by phone calls from my loved ones, doctors, nurses.   

Signed up for the marathon three days before. Race number: 666. Laughed to a nun volunteer at the nursing home where my mom was recuperating from her latest surgery that this meant I was going to run like the devil was chasing me. Joked that the last few years -- last few months in particular were like running to hell and back so I had more than enough training to probably win this race.

In a manner of speaking, I did. Finished faster than any of the last ten marathons for which I'd actually trained. Even crazier, I ran my second half of that race in negative splits. I ran the last 13. 1 miles 11 seconds FASTER than the first 13.1. For back-of-the packers like me, the generally accepted rule when it comes to predicting your marathon finish is that you add anywhere from ten to twenty minutes on to your half marathon time. So this was huge.

That's what muscle memory combined with adrenaline rushes from stress and anxiety will do to you, I guess. When I told my doctor this story a few days later, rather than congratulate me, she upped my meds, and told me to keep running. My therapist did congratulate me, and seconded the med and exercise recommendations. 

The summer marathon was all downhill, literally, except for a cruel one mile jug handle at mile 12. I walked part of that and worried I was going to faint because the dizziness was so intense. Could have been due to suddenly going from running to walking and a resultant drop in blood pressure. Or a panic attack -- my most faithful of friends this last year. Or most likely a combination of both, dizziness begets panic which begets dizziness begets panic and so on.

Somehow got through all that and got back on track. Even though I walked about a half mile of the last half of the race due to aching quads from the constant decline, I finished in my second fastest time ever. And when I say ever I mean of twenty-two marathons over the last sixteen years.  This was huge. The perfect storm. A magically perfect combination of anxiety, good training, and downhills.

Then came the end of summer and escalating illnesses on the home front. The escalating began the day before my return to work, and has yet to let up.

There have been major operations, long talks with oncologists, cardiologists, surgeons, loved ones. There have been too many tears, the filling out of DNR forms, note-taking on obituary info, hospital stays of weeks not days, many 911 calls and one crazy 90 mph highway drive (me from work to my parents' house to meet the ambulance), too many ER visits, two  ICU stays, and doctor appointments nearly every day since.

In the midst of this, I ran the third marathon.

Three days before the marathon, was the first of the many 911 calls.  The day before that fall race, the other loved one was unexpectedly granted release from six weeks of hospitalization and rehab. Hours before I went to bed the night before the race, a doctor called with bad news on the other loved one.

The morning of the marathon, both loved ones were stable and safe. I had solid medical assurance of this. I figured, I might as well run because otherwise I'd just be sitting around worrying. Plus, I still had trouble with constant shaking, even with the upped anxiety meds.

Needless to say, I hadn't slept in days, and had been so busy with my family, I'd barely eaten. No sleep. No carbs. All no-nos as far as running marathons goes.

I'd gotten in the habit of bringing my phone on runs with me these last few months, in case loved ones needed me. For this race, I left the phone in the car. There was no point in bringing it. My daughter was watching out for my dad, and my mom was stable in the hospital. With all the technology she was hooked up to and all the eyes watching her, there wasn't much I could do anyhow.

If I never see Hartford again, it will be too soon. I'd joked with my dad that because my race number was almost half my 666 number -- 334 -- I'd be doing the race in half the time. The truth is I finished it almost an hour after my spring time.

Every second of that marathon sucked. My quads were still tender from the downhill race over the summer. Almost every inch of the course was on heavy-duty pavement meant to last for eternities. Just keep smashing your foot onto a concrete highway for five-plus hours, and you'll understand the agony. By the halfway point I was walking, and wondering  if I had a stress fracture in my right foot, each strike to the ground ached and reverberated up my leg so strongly. 

There were lots of u-turns where, as you run forward the faster runners head back your way. Most races, I love these sections. I get a runner's high from cheering on my speedier and slower marathon friends. But this race my own misery, physical and mental, was overwhelming.

Nearing the final u-turn, still at least eight miles from the finish, I saw a runner wearing something that honest-to-god stopped me in my tracks. On the front of his optic yellow T-shirt, scrawled in huge black marker letters: "Ampullary Cancer Survivor."

I yelled to him. The words I cried made him turn around. . 

"My mom has that cancer."

He ran back and hugged me.

He told me I was the first person outside his family and medical professionals who knew about this cancer. Ampullary cancer is a type of pancreatic cancer. It is extremely rare and so far, always deadly.

He promised to wait for me at the finish so we could talk more.  

He ran one way, I slogged the other.

For the rest of the race, I mostly ran. I did my best to ignore the foot pain. It didn't hurt so much when I ran on grass or sand, both in abundance at this point in the race. While I can't say a cloud had lifted when I met that gentleman, and that's why I was able to hold my head high and mostly run, this coincidental meeting did serve a purpose that carried me forward. It reminded me that marathons always give me something. I just need to remember to always look for the lesson.

John from Maryland made good on his promise. He and his wife and two kids met me at the finish line. They waited a whole half hour.  I learned John was diagnosed three years ago. Luckily, he was a healthy enough candidate for the  intensely grueling Whipple surgery my mother didn't couldn't have. Whipple surgery digs into several vital organs, ducts, blood vessels. The recovery time is gargantuan, several months in a rehab facility. A year after the surgery, John was given the okay to resume a normal life.

But he didn't. Instead, he decided to start running marathons. He'd never been more than a once-in a while runner. He wanted to run marathons to prove to his loved ones and to himself that he was healthy.

Now John runs all the time. During races he always wears the ampullary cancer survivor message on his shirt. Of his thirteen marathons in the last two years, I was the first person to ever stop him.

Briefly, I told him my mother's story and how the night before we'd gotten news about a serious blockage in her intestines. He hugged me hard and said he'd pray for us. Of all people, he understood better than anyone other than my mom's oncologist what this development meant.  

We talked about his survival odds and my mother's odds. The fact my mother is still alive, five years from being told she had two years left, at best? We both agreed her survival is beyond miraculous. 

For him too, every day is heavenly.  The average survival rate for ampullary cancer, even with the god-awful Whipple procedure, is only five years.

Why do I mention all this now? It's ancient history, right? The first two races were in the spring and summer. The Hartford race was months ago, Columbus Day weekend. .

I mention all this to remind me to stay strong and to remind me to get help when I need it. This week, I faltered. I started off strong with big plans to run 1,200 miles this year. In fact, I ran 35.5 miles the first week of January. But I'm nearing the month's halfway mark and still need another 64.5 miles to reach this month's 100-mile goal.

I know. You're going to say I can do it. But really, can I?

This week was hell. Every day after work meant a medical appointment. We're not leaving these appointments with great news. Sure, one loved one gained a couple of pounds, but there's still another thirty to go, and there's still the fact she hasn't regained all of the seven she lost the month before. Then there was the other one and the new cardiology and limb amputation concerns.

How to cope with all this?

My mother put it best. "Things are still normal. It's just that we're always lowering to new normals." In other words, we adjust to new norms, then there's more bad news or another crisis -- another ER visit,  hospital stay,  new medication,  new home medical equipment, new schedules for visiting nurses, more doctor visits, new doctor visits. Finally, the dust settles and we adapt yet again. .

We re-think goals. Alter plans.Shift expectations.

 I have to take at least this  year off from my grad school program. I don't have the time available to do what I want to do with my writing and readings. If I sign up for any marathons this year, it will likely be spur-of-the-moment. I'm needed here at home. Family first. Always. Plus, in the grand scheme of things, both my writing and running dreams are minor, not life and death. 

My loved ones? How well they're adjusting to their infirmities is beyond my understanding.  They're my superheroes as they cope with the realities of life and death.

We all have our down moments. Sometimes we give up. Most times, I don't. But this week, I did. 

I know I need to take care of myself, yet I haven't run since Sunday. I have the best of excuses. From work, I went right to my parents' house every day. I didn't get home before 8 p.m., except for one day. 

Still, I know how to schedule. I could run before work. Or go to the gym in the evening.  During my first ten years of religiously training for and running marathons, I worked at least two jobs. Four of those years, I worked three. All that, in addition to raising two daughters totally on my own.  I know I could be doing better at scheduling in some gym time.

But I'm not sure I want to. I'm not sure if mileage this year means as much to me as other things. I have so much else on my plate, including soaking up and treasuring every second of the time that my loved ones have left. 

So I'm here to say that for 2017, I'm going to do my best to get in 1,200 miles of running. 

In fact, in all things I will try to do my best.

Ultimately, do my best is my goal this year.

Doing my best will look different every day. Isn't that true for all of us? With running, there are tangibles.  For everything else, I need to trust my instincts. My plan when it comes to determining my best: Control what I can, accept what I can't. Remind myself that every day, no matter how crazy or dull, is a gift.

2017, already you are a beast.

Ready. Set. Cope.

PS.  Managed to get in 100 miles in both January and February. Don't know how I did it.